Paddling the Coves and Sea Caves of the Mendocino Coast
Mendocino County’s dramatic coastline and crystal-clear waters hold a special allure for me. I can’t walk atop the headlands without wanting to be down on the water, exploring the magical blue-green coves hemmed by sea stacks and sea caves. Paddling the coves is the best way to discover the abundant wildlife and all the breathtaking rock formations you simply can’t see from land.
On a recent visit to Mendocino, I was driving Highway 1 late one afternoon when I spotted a trio of kayakers paddling back to shore at Van Damme State Park in Little River. Just a few miles south of Mendocino Village, the highway here dips and curves along Van Damme’s long crescent beach and calm, protected waters. I pulled into the beach parking lot where a scruffy vintage bus stood in the far corner with “Kayak Mendocino Sea Cave Nature Tours” painted on the side. This was my ticket.
I walked up to the sun and salt-weathered guide as he was hauling paddles and life jackets back to the bus. “Any chance you have openings for a kayak tour tomorrow?” I asked.
The guide happily indulged me by calling the office to check. Out in the water, a harbor seal poked his head up and spied on us. The guide said they could squeeze me in on either the morning or afternoon sessions but advised me to come out in the morning. He said the swell would be picking up later in the day. Excited for the adventure, I’d told him I’d be back in the morning.
I left the beach to go check in at my hotel, which was perched high above the ocean next door to the park. The historic, family-owned Little River Inn has been welcoming guests to its seaside resort for over 80 years. The inn’s original white Victorian was built in 1853 by Silas Coombs. The great-grandfather of the current owners turned the property into an inn in 1939, and it has remained in the family for five generations.
The inn has expanded over the years to include an Audubon-certified nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, a spa, a restaurant and bar, and a range of guest rooms to fit every budget, but the family’s deep-rooted sense of hospitality and stewardship of the land remain. Through conservation efforts, they want to ensure they’ll be able to welcome their guests’ children and grandchildren to the same pristine stretch of coastline that their great-grandparents knew and loved.
For my stay at Little River Inn, I chose one of the budget-friendly, motel-style rooms. It was housed in a two-level building from the 1950s or 60s. But the room was impeccably maintained and had a panoramic, jaw-droppingly beautiful view of the ocean. Just outside the room’s sliding glass door, rocking chairs lined a wide veranda stretching the length of the building. I kicked back into one of the chairs and was utterly mesmerized by the waves crashing into the sea stacks as the fog rolled in and the sun dipped below the ocean.
In the morning, a fabulous breakfast was delivered to my room which I enjoyed on the veranda as sunlight shimmered off the water. A seagull landed on the railing in front of me and hung around for a while as if expecting someone to deliver breakfast to him, too.
Afterward, I followed the resort’s private path down to Van Damme State Park and the beach. Rocky points on either side of the beach create a relatively calm, protected cove that is a popular launching spot for kayakers and beginning scuba divers. Inland, the park features beautiful hiking and biking trails through a fascinating pygmy forest and a beautiful canyon lined with redwoods and ferns. (The lower portion of Fern Canyon Scenic Trail is currently closed for repairs following the winter storms of 2023, but the upper section is still accessible.)
The kayaking guides outfitted our tour group with life jackets and helmets, and after a brief lesson, we shoved off onto the water in our kayaks. Super stable and easy to paddle, the kayaks are the sit-on-top-variety that are perfect for beginners and require no prior experience. Our first stop took us alongside rocky cliffs teaming with orange starfish and purple sea urchins just below the water’s surface. Around the corner, we found several abalone clinging to the rocks and Pigeon Guillemot gliding across the water. Above the waterline, seagulls bickered with a turkey vulture over a snack while black oystercatchers rested on the rocks.
The highlight of the tour for me was paddling through the sea caves. The largest one we entered resembled a cathedral with high ceilings worn away by the endless rushing of water and time. Stopping inside the cave, our boats rose and fell with the undulation of the water. The waves alternated between exposing and hiding all the abalone and starfish clinging to the walls of this watery wonderland.
Where to Stay in Little River
Little River Inn
Perched above the ocean on the south side of Van Damme State Park, the family-owned Little River Inn has been welcoming guests for over 80 years. All the guest rooms feature sweeping ocean views and many offer luxurious soaking tubs and fireplaces. Some of the rooms are pet friendly. The inn also features an onsite restaurant serving inspired cuisine and craft cocktails, a day spa, tennis courts, and a nine-hole golf course tucked among the redwoods that is also an Audubon-certified sanctuary. A private path leads directly from the inn to Van Damme State Park and the beach.
SCP Mendocino Inn and Farm
Bordering the north side of Van Damme State Park, this magical 15-acre farmstead is a celebration of sustainability, nature, and wellness all in one. SCP Mendocino Inn and Farm features 31 stylish rooms housed in a collection of buildings ranging from an 1867 cozy country manor to a modern lodge. Most of the rooms offer wood-burning fireplaces and ocean views. Stays include a complimentary breakfast and wine tasting each evening in the lodge. The property also features a day spa, organic vegetable gardens, and resident llamas and chickens. Guests can follow a private path into Van Damme State Park.
Inn at Schoolhouse Creek
Secluded on six-and-a-half acres of lush gardens, meadows, and forest in Little River, the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek features a charming collection of cottages and guest rooms with majestic ocean views. Among the most unique is the Water Tower Cottage. During World War II, it served as a lookout tower for the U.S. Coast Guard. Now, the base of the tower holds a private hot tub, and a spiral staircase leads to a platform with breathtaking views. All the accommodations are pet-friendly, and the inn will spoil furry companions with a welcome basket, toys, and unlimited treats.